February 19, 2016, by Michael Jennings

Discipline and punish: Foucault, BDSM and his philosophy of power

In this post, Dr Max Biddulph, Chair of the LGBTQ Staff Network, looks forward to his talk on Thursday 25 February: ‘Discipline and punish: Foucault, BDSM and his philosophy of power‘.

Looking around the world, Oscar Wilde is rumoured to have wryly observed ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power’. Sixty years on in the twentieth century, the relationship between power and sexuality was once again put under the microscope by the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. In his biography of Foucault James Miller (1994), proposes that at the time of his death, Foucault was arguably the single most famous intellectual in the world. The potency of his philosophical legacy is evidenced by the fact that in the twenty first century, he remains a philosophical heavy weight in any discussion that conceptualises ‘power’ and its manifestations/conduits in social relations. Based on his research undertaken in the French prison system, Foucault published ‘Discipline and Punish’ in 1975, challenging the view of institutions as benevolent arbiters of power. Miller, offers a rather sombre summary of what he sees as Foucault’s thesis:

The modern prison epitomized an unobtrusive, essentially painless type of coercion typical of the modern world. From schools and the professions to the army and prison, the central institutions of our society…strove with sinister efficiency to supervise the individual ‘to neutralize his dangerous states’ and to alter his conduct by inculcating numbing codes of discipline. The inevitable result was ‘docile bodies’ and obedient souls, drained of creative energy. (Miller, 1994:15)

But later Foucault himself seems more sanguine (Foucault, 1984) and in a somewhat contradictory statement he opens up the idea of the benefits that submission and ‘coercion’ can bring:

If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.

The reference to the body and pleasure are possible hints to what some observers of Foucault argue is his more personal experiences as a practitioner of BDSM [BDSM = a combination of the abbreviations B/D (Bondage and Discipline), D/s (Dominance and submission), and S/M (Sadism and Masochism)]. His invitations to be a visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley during the late 1970s and early 1980s positioned him in what was a hot bed of counter-culture and the embryonic leather/BDSM scene ‘South of Market/Folsom Street’ in downtown San Francisco. Although his work in the prison system is widely discussed, Foucault’s experience as a BDSM practitioner is much more elusive and less frequently reported.

The LGBT History Month lecture ‘Discipline and Punish’ will audit his interest in BDSM, his involvement in the gay men’s leather scene and assess its contribution to his ‘forensic understanding’ of both the artefacts and conduits of power and subsequent BDSM practice. The tantalising question is, whether Foucault’s visits to the scene functioned as a mirror or as a laboratory? I will report on the ethical and methodological challenges of the gay historian, the evidence in his published interviews with Jean Le Bitoux (1978) and The Advocate (1984), uncorroborated voices from the San Francisco Leather Community and most special of all, the perspectives of Gayle Rubin, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies, University of Michigan, revealed in our 2016 email correspondence.

6.30pm, Thursday 25 February in A30 Lecture Theatre, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, University Park.

Free, age 16+. Places are limited, so please book online.

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